John Tiller was born in Blackpool in 1854 and learnt to clog dance as a boy. He later started a theatre school in Manchester. By 1895 he managed several troupes of dancers. Each troupe was slightly different but all of them performed the same style of formation dancing in which the girls were grouped according to height. Each troupe had a distinct personality or theme. There was the Fairy Troupe, Tiller’s Troubadours, the Forget-me-nots, Tiller’s Mascots and the Rainbow Troupe. Dressed in similar costumes they all performed high kicks, cartwheels and the splits as part of their routines.
The Tiller Girls act in the 1960s, black and white photograph, about 1960
For over 50 years, there was hardly a country in the world without a Tiller Girls troupe. This photograph shows the discipline and precision for which they were famous. Although they danced in many different styles, they are primarily remembered for their high kicking precision routines. From the first troupe formed by John Tiller in Manchester in 1890 grew dozens of groups appearing throughout the world.
Each group was composed of girls who were perfectly matched for height and weight. Individuality was not encouraged. The important thing was for a girl to sink her personality into that of the group. This was difficult for the dancers, many of whom longed to express their own personalities. It was the discipline and group ethic that proved the act's downfall. In the 1970s new dance groups, like The Young Generation and Pan's People gave more freedom to individuals within the group and the day of the Tiller Girls was over.
The Tiller Girls, sepia photograph, about 1890
This photograph from the 1890s is of one of the earliest troupes of Tiller Girls. John Tiller first started a dance troupe in Manchester in 1890. The Four Sunbeams were four ten year old little girls, and from this small beginning at the King's Theatre grew one of the most professional chorus and dance ensembles in this country. John Tiller started out as a successful cotton merchant but when he fell on hard times, he decided to try to make a living in the theatre, his great passion. He noticed that the chorus, however beautiful, often spoiled the effect of its numbers through lack of discipline. John Tiller and his wife Jenny opened a residential school which trained girls to dance with the precision of a corps de ballet. By the turn of the century all the major musical comedy managers were employing 'Tiller Girls', and his pupils worked everywhere from Paris to New York.
The Tiller Girls in Ever Green, printed newspaper cutting, King's Theatre Glasgow, Scotland, about 1930
This cartoon published in the Glasgow Evening Times in 1930 features the highspots of the new Rodgers and Hart musical Ever Green. The Tiller Girls appeared as ‘Vanities’ in the revue ‘Eternal Youth’, which closed the first act of the musical. By the 1930s, The Tiller Girls were appearing throughout the world. They appeared in Hollywood films and at the Folies Bergère in Paris.
In Britain they danced in variety shows, pantomimes and summer shows. Each group was composed of girls who were perfectly matched for height and weight. Individuality was not encouraged. The important thing was for a girl to sink her personality into that of the group. This was difficult for the dancers, many of whom longed to express their own personalities. At one time, a girl could not be married and stay a Tiller Girl. As some girls were as young as 16, they were usually closely chaperoned, especially when they were working abroad.
1930s advertisement for stockings, Bondor Company, magazine cutting, September 1935
By the 1920s John Tiller girls were appearing throughout the world. They had become part of the public consciousness and many people, seeing an advertisement with a line-up of precision chorus girls like this, would have thought 'Tiller Girls'. Jack Buchanan sometimes employed Tiller Girls in his musicals. Stockings at this time were made of silk or lisle, a heavier yarn usually worn for every day. Nylon stockings did not become generally available in England until the 1950s.